The Storyteller

Obama’s best speeches have always revolved around stories. Which one will he tell on Tuesday?

See all of Slate’s inauguration coverage.

Barack Obama has a lot of ground to cover in his inaugural address. He has to create optimism, kick off a new era, give the country a vision of happier days, act humbly, thank God, thank his family, live up to his own sky-high rhetorical expectations, and not get frostbite.

He will undoubtedly hit these marks. What I’m wondering is whether he’s found a story for the moment. Some of Obama’s most memorable campaign speeches were powerful because of the news—after his Iowa victory and after his defeat in New Hampshire—but the ones that were most successful on their own always ended with a story.

Obama didn’t just tell inspirational anecdotes. He told stories about a transaction—the moment inspiration jumps from one person to another. It was this transaction, repeated thousands of times, that turned the Obama candidacy into a movement. That it also happened to be an effective way to ask for people’s votes was surely part of the plan. But Obama was also selling an idea that could sound corny or quaint: the notion that many small actions could make a large difference.

The sense of unity and collective action is the spirit he will try to rekindle Tuesday on the Mall. His inauguration speech will be framed with the idea of a “new era of responsibility,” a theme he touched on at the end of the campaign and again in his recent speech about his economic recovery package. The idea is that everyone, from politicians to CEOs to those of us trying to get a bank loan, has to take greater responsibility to get us out of the fix we’re in.

Sounds good. But how do you build this kind of thing, particularly in an age where trust in government is low and people are cynical and distrustful of their fellow humans for all the reasons Obama himself has outlined? To get us all on board with this idea, Obama has to wire us together. To build collective responsibility, there has to be social cohesion. If we’re not all in this together, if my neighbor or editor isn’t going to do his part, why will I bother to fulfill my responsibilities? I might also be doubtful about whether simply acting responsibly can change anything. And I might also reject the premise: Those Wall Street bankers did more than I did to get us into this mess. So why shouldn’t they have to do more to get us out?

Obama undoubtedly knows this, which is why the entire inaugural cavalcade has been designed to help create unity. As Obama says in his message about the inauguration: “It’s not about me. It’s about us.” His office has created Organizing for America to help people organize in their communities, and encouraged people to host inaugural celebrations in their hometowns and join together in a national day of service.

Some of that might actually work. But none of it will be able to match the power of a well-delivered speech, which much of America (and the world) will stop to watch. In his address, Obama could simply describe the dilemma and call for a collective effort to solve it. “The change we’ve worked so hard for will not happen unless ordinary Americans get involved,” he said in his message announcing Organizing for America. Or he could return to familiar phrases about our ability to “recognize ourselves in each other.” But he has the skills to be more rhetorically powerful. This is where the stories come in.

During his campaign, Obama also had to convince people that individual action and connection could make a difference in a community (and, not incidentally, a campaign). Two examples from last year stand out. (If you want to experience them instead of having them synopsized—and you should—the first can be watched or read and the second can be watched here.)

The first is the story of Ashley Baia, a young white woman volunteering in his South Carolina office. Baia’s personal story so affected a black man nearly three times her age that he became a volunteer in the Obama campaign. The story was so effective that Obama reprised the tale at the end of his speech on race in America. The second story is the one Obama told regularly throughout his campaign about being rallied by the spirit of an elderly woman on the city council in Greenwood, S.C.— the “fired up and ready to go” story he told perhaps never so well as on the last night of his campaign.

The goal of these stories was not just to make people feel good, though they did. It was to make the case for engagement. At the end of each campaign story of inspiration, he made the same claim—that a voice could change a room and a room could change a city and a city could change a state and a state could change a nation.

To convince Americans to make a collective sacrifice, Obama first has to convince them that they face a collective danger. It’s clear from Obama’s recent statements that he believes the economy can be improved for the long term only if people genuinely embrace a new feeling of shared responsibility. “There are going to be very difficult choices,” he told the Washington Post, choices requiring “sacrifice and responsibility and duty.”

Will Obama find his story? One might have landed in his lap in the heroic actions of Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, the pilot who safely landed that US Airways jet in New York’s Hudson River on Thursday. There are rumors he might make an inauguration appearance. What better tale for the times than one of calm, collective action at a moment of crisis?

Then again, storytelling can feel forced, and it’s certainly not crucial for an inaugural address, which is a clear departure from the campaign rhetoric. Kennedy’s famous address did not include any anecdotes, yet for inspirational punch, it ranks alongside the one Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the other end of the Mall two and a half years later.

Of course, there is another approach available to Obama. Maybe he doesn’t need a new story because just by standing there, he will be the story. In many ways, despite what he’s said about Tuesday, the story will not be about us—it will be about him.